'Tomb Raider': The Return of the First Pixelated Sex Symbol

Alicia Vikander gets a chance to turn Lara Croft into an interesting, human heroine

FILE PHOTO: This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Alicia Vikander in a scene from "Tomb Raider."
Ilze Kitshoff/AP

Superheroes have been the unquestioned rulers of Hollywood in recent years. The comics-based film industry has a turnover of billions of dollars annually, not including sales of film-related merchandize. But its roots tend to be more modest. Ideas for the likes of “Batman” or “Black Panther” usually come from inspired artists, while the film that reaches the big screen is the endpoint of an assembly line. The original artists haven’t disappeared, but many others join them, as do directors, casting agents, producers, marketing experts and others.

The character of Lara Croft is a pioneer of an alternative route that begins and ends on the assembly line. She is celebrating 22 years of success with the film “Tomb Raider,” which hopes to breathe life into the brand, as the video game did five years ago. Lara Croft is a successful cultural icon that was shaped in laboratory conditions by programmers and marketing people. Innumerable pixels were designed to create a coarse and deliberate imitation of Indiana Jones, the archetype of the tough archaeologist originally created by George Lucas.

Lots of cooks stirred the pot until the computerized version released in 1996 was upgraded. The game was designed to be as similar to the fictional archaeologist as possible, but not too similar – so as to avoid a lawsuit. The solution was ridiculously simple: The male archaeologist was replaced by a female. Lara was characterized as a smart researcher who specializes in raiding tombs, fleeing from supernatural forces, solving puzzles and eliminating mysterious rivals.

The imitation of Indiana Jones was blatant, but the change of gender was enough. Gigantic breasts disproportionate to the human body, tight shorts and leg holsters holding two guns have become trademarks of the computerized heroine. That’s how, without much thought or self-awareness, the first pixelated sex symbol was born.

Since the 1990s, Lara Croft has continued to adapt herself to a changing audience, with varying degrees of success on a number of platforms. Her first foray into film in 2001 in “Tomb Raider,” starring Angelina Jolie, demonstrated the potential of adapting video games to the big screen, with profits of about a quarter of a billion dollars.

Although the reviews were scathing and the follow-up film failed – Lara Croft survived and was upgraded on PlayStation, in an animated series, in comics and more. The turning point came in 2013, when the video game character was rebooted to adapt it to the changing culture. This time, the plot of the game focuses on Croft’s origin story and takes place at an earlier stage of her life. Lara is still based on adventures and puzzles, but the new version has been given a dark and violent twist, and her dimensions and abilities have become more human.

The success of the 2013 version led to a predictable reboot of the cinematic version as well, this time with the Swedish actor Alicia Vikander as the lead. The comparison to Jolie is inevitable: Both actors entered the boots of Lara Croft only two years after winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Jolie for her role in “Girl, Interrupted” and Vikander for “The Danish Girl”). In other words, they received appreciation and honors, but have yet to star in a major box-office hit. Both also used the character to become superstars.

FILE PHOTO: This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Alicia Vikander in a scene from "Tomb Raider."
Ilze Kitshoff/AP

Seventeen years later, it’s easy to say that Lara Croft contributed to Jolie’s career, but that’s not yet clear in the case of Vikander. The choice of Norwegian director Roar Uthaug certainly helped, after he proved in his film “The Wave” that a disaster film can be impressive and thrilling even without a Hollywood budget.

The plot of the new film is largely based on the new version of the video game. One reboot is based on another. In the renewed version, Lara Croft is a lonely young woman who is just on the threshold of becoming the familiar adventurous heroine. Her father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West of “The Affair” and “The Wire”) disappeared seven years earlier, but she refuses to sign a paper declaring him officially dead. For that reason, she isn’t eligible to inherit billions. She spends her time making deliveries on a bicycle and training in mixed martial arts. This is a highly intelligent, fit young woman, marking time while waiting to make suitable use of her talents.

Two for one

Everything changes when she finds her father’s secret office and is exposed to the hidden side of his personality: He is an international adventurer. Croft decides to set out on a journey following the hints he left her. First she arrives in Hong Kong, where she meets an alcoholic captain played by Daniel Wu, who became famous in China and whose casting seems to be an attempt to woo China’s expanding market. The two young people, both with missing fathers, set out to duplicate entire scenes from the computer game on the mysterious island of Yamatai, which is hard to reach and even harder to leave. The journey to their destination (I’ll avoid a spoiler here) is full of vicissitudes, and they have to solve mysteries before being beaten out by a cruel gang of antiquities looters led by Mathias Vogel (played by Walton Goggins, from “The Shield” and “Justified”).

The updating of the “Tomb Raider” cinematic software is first and foremost an improvement over the previous round. The new film rides on a wave of nostalgia for the nneties, and at the same time on the current fascination with superheroes. Lara Croft is two for the price of one. As befits a character drawn from a console, the heroine was and remains lacking in depth. The finish line is clear, but it’s not clear what motivates her to run toward it.

The clumsy attempt to focus on her relationship with her father as a background to her activity only emphasizes the big hole in the script. Any attempt to turn Croft into a Wonder Woman-style icon suited to the #MeToo era is unrealistic. Despite the positive changes, it is simply an archaeological remnant from the 1990s. However, as an action heroine the new Lara is an upgrade. The old hyper-sexual and superhuman heroine, who skips lightly over every obstacle and wins hands down, has now been replaced by a woman who is somewhat more down to earth. Nothing comes easily to the new Croft, and there is a physical and emotional price to pay for mistakes.

The difference between the two Laras is obvious at first glance. This time the famous artificial breasts that Jolie had to wear have disappeared. Instead, the creators are offering an almost obsessive preoccupation with Vikander’s impressive abs. These serve mainly to demonstrate the physical burden on the inexperienced young woman, who suddenly finds herself leading an entirely differently lifestyle. In her previous incarnation the character overcame obstacles easily, with a condescending smile of the kind that Jolie knows how to produce. No longer.

Vikander’s Lara never stops working hard. She runs, jumps, falls, hangs, climbs, beats, repels beatings, shoots, is shot at, and in general places her body under endless stress tests. She shouts, sighs, cries and breaks down. Lara Croft’s personality may not undergo a genuine process of change in the course of the film, but her body and spirit do.

But despite the refreshing change in the character, the action in general is a different story. Insistence on recreating important elements of the successful game survive the transition to film when it comes to the logic puzzles, the mysteries and some of the chase scenes. But the most important action scenes are overly inspired by the original version and don’t exploit their potential. The desire to please hardcore fans is understandable. But there’s a difference between cinematic action and action in a video game, where the spectator controls the hero’s activities.

The present “Tomb Raider” has a handsome budget of about $100 million, but it doesn’t look it. The result isn’t bad, and will probably satisfy action-film fans, but there are better films showing today. There’s no question that it was created as a springboard for a series, and the bais for sequels comes at the expense of part of the plot.

However, the casting of Vikander as Lara Croft, which can make or break a film like this, is no less than excellent. Although she doesn’t demonstrate the acting talents that have brought her this far, she has received a better opportunity, even if limited, to turn Lara Croft into a more interesting heroine. Even her British accent is preferable.